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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

OCTOBER 15, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 41

The Continuing Ordeal
Fear and deprivation in West Timor's camps

In a small church on a dusty hill spattered with pink, red and white bougainvillea blossoms, 300 East Timorese find refuge. This is one of the few places where pro-Indonesia militias have so far stayed clear. And here, on the grounds of the Santa Maria Asumpta Catholic church in West Timor's capital of Kupang, refugees freely express their views. "We all want to go to our home, our land," says one East Timorese. "We will rebuild it, and then we will celebrate under a tree if we have to." They are the luckier ones. In the 14 major camps in West Timor, the refugees reveal no such candor for fear that spies linked to pro-integration militias might take revenge.

The presidency is up for grabs
• Backlash Why ASEAN is now uncomfortable with the international peacekeeping force in East Timor
• Reporter's Notebook West Timor as dangerous neighbor

The fallout from the Myanmar embassy siege

Another chapter in the Anwar poisoning saga

Why the country can't get its nuclear power act together

Among Estrada's problems: a Taiwan air dispute

With political and financial uncertainty deepening, the people's patience is running out with the country's big institutions - the presidency, military, parliament (10/08/99)

Why Megawati gave the military a plum post (10/08/99)

East Timor
What Falintil is up to (10/08/99)

When pro-Jakarta militias went on a killing and looting orgy following East Timor's vote for independence on Aug. 30, some 260,000 East Timorese - almost a third of the territory's population - fled their villages and crossed the border, forcibly or otherwise, into West Timor (which partially explains why peacekeepers and journalists in East Timor have reported seeing large areas devoid of people). But the fear that the refugees tried to escape has followed them, and they now live among the same armed thugs who terrorized them back home. Gangs from the Aitarak and Besi Merah Putih militias patrol most camps, searching new arrivals and checking them against a hit list of wanted pro-independence leaders. Now it is difficult to determine who is a militia member because they have all blended in with the crowds. "One family does not trust the next one," says Father Felix Michael Kosat, Asumpta's head priest.

In the eastern part of the island, some sense of security has returned, thanks to the Australian-led International Force for East Timor (Interfet). But it is in West Timor where trouble is festering. Not only are the militias seeking revenge against independence supporters, they are threatening to reclaim western parts of East Timor. Militia commander Joao da Silva Tavares told more than 1,000 members in an open field near the West Timor border town of Atambua to "be ready to face the Interfet in two days." On Oct. 6, an Interfet convoy was ambushed in East Timor near the town of Suai, 15 km from the border. Two militiamen were killed in the clash, while two Australian soldiers were injured.

The peacekeepers may be more than a match for the militias, but the refugees are fair game. At the Tua Pukan camp near Kupang, 14,000 people are crammed into deserted army barracks, sheltered under plastic tarpaulins, palm huts and scraps of cardboard. They are short of food and drinking water. But they don't dare ask to go home. "It is very dangerous to say that you want to return," says "Juan," a civil servant with pro-independence sympathies. "They will shoot, and they will kill."

He is not exaggerating. Reports have surfaced of independence advocates disappearing from camps. In Stadium Gor, the largest refugee camp in Kupang, food is being denied to those who say they want to return to East Timor, according to Amnesty International. Declares Tavares: "The people can choose as they please, but they must bear the consequences." A drive through the Noel Baki camp 14 km out of Kupang reveals hundreds of red-and-white Indonesian flags and people wearing pro-integration T-shirts. There, a senior U.N. official was recently stoned and beaten by a pro-Jakarta mob, who then set his car on fire. Foreigners, especially Caucasians, have been warned to stay away.

It is up to the Indonesian government to determine the fate of the East Timorese refugees. Jakarta announced plans to resettle up to 100,000 of them in Flores, Kalimantan and Irian Jaya. Minister for Social Welfare Haryono Suyono declared that refugees are being given the choice of relocating, staying in West Timor or returning to East Timor. "We have never prevented them from returning," he said. Indonesian officials, who say 60% want to go back home, have already begun registering the refugees. But aid workers fear that if this is done in an atmosphere of terror, families will be forced to opt for relocation instead of admitting that they want to return home to East Timor.

Meanwhile, the U.N. has begun to distribute supplies inside the refugee camps, where conditions are deteriorating rapidly. Although epidemics have been avoided, 18 children have died of dysentery. In the arid hills near border towns like Atambua, camps have been clustered around the banks of rivers with barely more than a trickle of water because of the long dry season. When the rains come in December, floods could sweep away many of the makeshift settlements. "It could become very, very bad," warns Ram Koraila of UNICEF in Kupang. The solution would be to get the refugees out and back to their homes as quickly as possible. But with the militias watching, that is clearly easier said than done.

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